The distinction between thoughts and emotions

   Yeah, I know. It sounds pretty easy, right? Judith S. Beck talks in her book Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond (1995) about confusions people often make. Let me give you some examples:

  1. I feel that he hates me.
  2. I know today is going to be a bad day, I can feel
  3. I think I’m sad.

   “Why the f*ck does it matter?” Great question! It matters because according to the cognitive therapy, we can do something directly about the thoughts, but not directly to feelings. Thoughts can be countered while emotions can indicate how important is a topic/situation for that person so labeling them correctly can help us know ourselves better. The correct labels would be:

  1. I think he hates me (and this makes me feel sad/angry).
  2. I know today is going to be a bad day, or at least that’s what I think.
  3. I feel sad.

   Thoughts create emotions and emotions can keep the mind in a certain state which will bring more thoughts that can strengthen that emotion. It’s a vicious circle. Labeling them correctly can help us find a way to break that circle.

   “Emotions are what we’re experiencing at an emotional level – like sadness, anger, concern and so on. Thoughts are the ideas that we have; we’re thinking in either words or images.” Judith S. Beck

   A thought can be evaluated and it can be true or false, but an emotion cannot be true or false. It just is. We feel it. It’s there. Maybe it’s not the appropriate emotion we could have in that situation, but that’s how it is. The stronger the emotion, the bigger impact we take in that situation. Emotions are ways to evaluate the importance of… something, while thoughts are our buttons that trigger those emotions. For example, you can tell to someone You shouldn’t think that, but you cannot say You shouldn’t feel that because we’re not in direct control of what we feel, but we’re in control of what we think (with lots of practice).

   We’re always thinking either we realize it or not. We’re often surprised by a certain feeling and we don’t know why, but something went through our minds without us noticing. Our brain is a b*tch.

   What do you think? Is it important to know the difference between thoughts and emotions?

43 thoughts on “The distinction between thoughts and emotions

  1. I like this insight, and you’re right. Gotta make conscious efforts to figure out what my brain signals me. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. It is very important and this is also what I learned through CBT.

    I would argue you that we cannot control thoughts, so to speak, simply because there are so many of them. If we try to stop thinking, we would just become vegetables.

    The key is not to pin too much importance on any of them; if you think about killing someone, it won’t make it happen. It is just a thought, and therefore should have no importance assigned to it.

    The same goes for emotions; we should leave them be because they are an integral part of ourselves. If we becomes biased against them (bad thoughts, bad emotions) we push back upon ourselves, causing friction and eventually suffering in some form.

    Being an observer is an effective way to process things. Just let things come and go without judgement, because only then will you realise it really is YOU who decides what happens next 🙂

    1. I agree we cannot control their appearance, but we can control their influence. If we counter those thoughts, we limit their influence and doing it constantly, they might not appear anymore because our mindset would change. That’s what I meant with controlling them. Thank you for taking your time to share your thoughts! 😀

      1. The ON/OFF switch is beyond me when it comes to thinking 🤔… for me it’s like never-ending streaming TV: with practice I can use my remote to change the content. 🤔

  3. Hey, cool article! 🙂 I think it’s really important to realize that our emotions are an action signal telling us that something us out of equilibrium. This does not need to be in a negative sense. If we realize this, we know exactly when to act in response to a certain situation. 🙂

  4. Have you seen the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy triangle? Add behavior to thoughts and feelings. Essentially, it’s telling us how they influence each other. Thoughts beget feelings beget behaviors and vice versa. We have to throw logic in to our thoughts, so that our emotions don’t run us. Check it out. It was a huge part of group therapy for me.

    1. I’m familiar with that triangle and it’s a huge part of individual therapy too. Behavior is the noticeable outcome. Thank you for reminding me! 😀

  5. The insight is awesome and had a logical and literal use of understanding but what I feel is the actual personality side of distinction and structure
    I could be wrong but it’s like eating chocolate and a packet of nuts lol

    1. I believe that our feelings come from our thoughts (conscious and unconscious). The feeling is like the sound. If you hit a hammer, you have a certain sound. If you pop a balloon, you have another sound and so on. The hammer and the balloon are our thoughts… the sources. You cannot change the the sound made by the hammer (the emotion), but you can change how you hit with that hammer or you can stop hitting with it. Does it make sense?

    1. I wouldn’t say an emotion lies. The thoughts lie and since thoughts trigger emotions, the emotion is not adequate. So, in my opinion, the emotion itself doesn’t lie, but only the thoughts (we always have thoughts even though we’re not aware of them).

  6. I can definitely agree with this post. Thanks for making it. Most times I know why I’m emotional at that point and I’m a constant overthinker. I know when my thoughts are just clouding me and when they are genuine.

  7. Enlightening post in which you highlight the dichotomy between emotions and reality. I feel if we can control our thought life, it will enrich every other aspect of our lives.

  8. Great article, I agree with your point of view. We can’t to anything about our emotions. If we feel in a certain way about something then that’s it. But we can surely control our thoughts with conscious efforts. Thank you for sharing this.

  9. I agree thoughts are relatively easy to control and that feelings are tougher to control, and that they influence each other. We should control our thoughts to help moderate the excesses of our feelings (negative feelings, rumination, etc) else we find ourselves indulging in negative emotions. I say ‘indulging’ because it seems to me that’s what we do sometimes. I sometimes like venting anger and sometimes I like feeling a little sad (particularly when comfort food’s involved!). I have no idea why this is, or what purpose it serves, but I know it’s common.

    1. Well, life is not all good. There are negative aspects and we should feel those negative feelings, but we don’t need negative feelings in neutral or positive situations.

  10. I love this post, and totally agree with what you’re saying here. Once I realized the real difference between thoughts and feelings, it was a game changer for me. Something else that really has helped with accepting and handling my feelings was hearing/learning that there is no moral value to emotions. That is, the emotion itself isn’t good/bad or right/wrong. It just is. How we act on that emotion, though, is the important thing, and that’s where morals and all that can come into play.

  11. This is so important. Too often we hear people get reprimanded or ridiculed for their emotions. ‘You shouldn’t feel hurt’, ‘it makes no sense that you’re angry, get over it’, ‘how could you be happy at a time like this?’, ‘no need to worry, it’s perfectly safe’. People are so stuck in their own world, only seeing how they would feel and act, so people feeling or acting unexpectedly can lead to harsh words, like when people get angry when people grieve ‘wrong’. And (some) mental health specialists are no better. The amount of stories you hear of depressed people being told to ‘cheer up’ because it will make them feel better, as if they wouldn’t if they could. I wish everyone understood that emotions are something we cannot control, that we should let people feel them even when they seem inappropriate. As long as we don’t act rashly and hurt others because of our emotions I don’t see why we shouldn’t accept them. Even though they’re often hard to distinguish (at least for me), they’re an essential part of the human experience, even the painful ones. It takes a lot of practice and self-awareness to not let your emotions cloud your judgment but that doesn’t make them a burden. We just need to learn from an early age how to do deal with how we feel and to let it out in a healthy way.

    1. I totally agree with what you said. We’re too often feeling guilty for our own feelings because we hear what we should feel and what we shouldn’t feel in a particular situation and actually it has nothing to do with it.

  12. Do you want to know what I think or feel? I really enjoyed reading this blogpost of you. People often try to control their feelings in order to function into a certain system of thinking, i.e religion, society or politics. But it might seem unbelievable it’s possible to change your thoughts by listening to your feelings and personal border! Your inner voice is like a surreal superpower, something which works like a navigation in a car, if you know to use it smartly. It can help you to find a healthy path which is in harmony with your feelings and your thoughts. I am thankful for my inner voice.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! Yes, I agree with you that the inner voice is powerful, but sometimes there are multiple inner voices and the strongest one might not be the most accurate one. We have to listen carefully.

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